Uganda Journal: the women of Nakagongo


Women from Nakagongo look over satellite maps that have tracked their movements.

She’s not Big Brother, but Deb Naybor has nonetheless been watching them: twenty-seven women from the village of Nakagongo, Uganda, who have carried with them GPS units that track their movements and Deb, back near Buffalo, New York, has followed them via satellite. Now she’s showing up in Nakagongo to find out just where these women have been going.

The women, widows who range in age from twenty to seventy-two, are part of a women’s group Deb has been working with as part of her dissertation research. The GPS units have mapped out the daily movement of the women over time. Deb has printed out satellite maps that show the movements of each woman; our job in Nakagongo today will be to sit with each woman, point to places on their maps, and ask, “When you go to this place here, what are you doing?”

By looking at the results, Deb will not only get insight into the daily lives of the individual women but also insight into what life is typically like for women in rural African communities.

If Bethlehem is so small that it doesn’t show up on the maps, Nakagongo, just a few dirt-road kilometers away, is so small that it hardly shows up as anything more than a few isolated houses tucked away in a banana forest. The village consists of two loose clusters of homes along two roads; each house sits in a rectangular clearing a little larger than a tennis court, although a few are almost as big as a Little League infield.

As we get closer to the village, the dirt road narrows until the word “road” becomes a really generous description. It’s no more than a bicycle path, really, yet Herman guides our van with unerring confidence.


Wearing their best brightly colored clothes and traditional dresses called gomasi, the women sing and dance to greet us.

The leader of the group is a gentle-eyed woman named Susan who looks to be in her late thirties. When we arrive at her house, the women from the group greet us with songs, and we’re ushered inside for a special meal that includes rice, ground nuts, chicken, beef, and goat. There’s a soup, too, and matooke, a kind of mash made from bananas that Ugandans have with nearly every meal.

Deb explains that Susan would be considered middle class, so her house has several rooms, each about the size of something that might pass for a walk-in closet, and a concrete floor. The house has a corrugated metal roof.

Susan kneels in front of the group in a traditional sign of respect and hands “Mamma Deborah” a report of the group’s activities.

Susan’s husband died of AIDS a few years ago and she herself has been sick twice this past year—most likely from AIDS, although we don’t know for sure. Her hospitalizations made childcare difficult: Susan has three kids of her own and three orphans she’s adopted. Her illness also made it hard for her to tend to her pigs, goats, and chickens—some of which she raises on behalf of the women’s group—and so they lost a few.

The introductions take the afternoon, and so we return on a second day to begin the actual work. Boys from the school come with us to serve as translators; even though English is the official language of Uganda, most people speak the native Luganda in their homes and use English as a second language.


Elijah translates for one of the women as she identifies places on the satellite maps

We break up into teams, and a student named Elijah works with me. Elijah is in secondary school and aspires to be a lawyer someday. He takes to the work earnestly, and over the course of the afternoon, we speak with a half a dozen women. Here on the map, says one, I go to collect firewood. Here I go to garden. Here is a trading center. Here I go to church. Here I go to the clinic. Here I take my child to the clinic. Here I go to the hospital.

Clinic trips are a dishearteningly common occurrence, it turns out. It holds true not only for the women I speak with but for nearly all the women in the group.

The one woman who owns a sewing machine does not travel much; the other women come to her. One woman collects bananas for making beer. Another goes to drink beer. Among their most frequent trips are trips to various wells, where they not only get water but catch up with other community members on the village’s goings-on. It’s the Uganda version of the office water cooler. Beyond that, few have time for dropping by at the neighbors’ to chit-chat unless they’re working on a project together of some kind.


Susan leads the women in one of the greeting songs

Deb has much data to analyze, and some of the sites on the maps will need clarification, so we’ll go out with the women later in the week and actually walk to those places so we can see what’s there. “They’re consistent on where the gardens are and where Susan’s house is,” Deb tells me, “but, for instance, they’ve identified churches all over the place. That can’t be right unless they’re just getting together in small groups here and there.” We’ll also visit some of their homes.

Another of our group members, a licensed massage therapist who heads up Damon College’s public health program, will teach infant massage to some of the mothers later in the week. She’ll also teach the women how to make their own sanitary napkins. Deb will teach other members of the group how to make solar-powered cellphone chargers. I’ll probably blow up some balloons to entertain the dozen or so kids who are around.

The children look so joyful and so beautiful, but Deb tells me of the dark stories they carry beneath their smiles. One girl, for instance, was gang raped when she was nine before one of the women adopted her. Several have had fathers die of AIDS and suffer from infection themselves. And yet choosing which color balloon they want proves a source of high delight.

Heartbreak and beauty continue to walk hand in hand.


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